Take Care What You Donate and to Whom

Ancestors, locked away and held for ransom!
Ancestors, locked away and held for ransom!

My Ancestors, and perhaps many millions more of your own, are actively being held for ransom. Donating to a local Historical Society seems like a kind and generous act when you have finished scanning and scrutinizing photos and papers. BUT. Lately, I’ve been learning a tough lesson about handing over the “goods” to a big omnipotent archive.

Well of course I’ll elaborate…thanks for asking!

Remember 10 or 15 years ago when the digital imaging thingy was hotly debated and very new? I clearly recall telling my oldest daughter she couldn’t have a “camera phone” because I was sure they would be quickly outlawed. Copyright and plagiarism issues were the angst du’ jour.

Well, that didn’t happen. And now, I cannot imagine doing my job, any of them…without my smartphone. I use it more for photos than I use it for incoming/outgoing calls. It’s cheap. One micro SD card = a bazillion images stored. It’s immediate. The clarity of the photos is startling and WYSIWYG (blog-speak for “What You See Is What You Get) lets me know immediately whether or not the pic is good.

And this brings me to the digital scanners we dedicated family history hounds tow along in our purses and dity-bags.  The amount of light these wonders of the modern age expose delicate pieces of documentation to is minimal. They are relatively safe and will not markedly degrade the object. With our memory cards, once again we can store a bazillion images inexpensively. We can then upload the images and SHARE with loved ones. Or use them to head up blog articles (guilty 🙂 )

Meanwhile, back to the real late 90’s and copyright infringement and book-snarfing via blatant acts of plagiarism like photographing each page for free ala a Boris and Natasha…

I went into our local climate controlled, nothing-allowed-in but a #2 pencil and a single sheet of standard notebook paper, air locked and hushed-if you-whispered image archive room. My mission for the day was to find a photo and perhaps some biographical info on my husband’s Granddad who was a big shot in banking. It was a really cool place with little self-serve lockers in the airlock where you could lock away all the stuff you weren’t allowed to bring in. That most certainly would include a camera–phone!

I dutifully used my #2 to request the file box that I wanted to see, and about 20 minutes later, was happily pawing through it elbow deep. Now, it seems the archive had been in possession of this box for about 20 some years. However, they had not gotten around to cataloging the specific contents. I had struck gold by devine intervention during a discerning round of eeny-meeny-miny-mo. I was only allowed one box at a time.

All the goodies were not delicately preserved in acid free sleeves– handled only with the long surgical steel tongs and white gloves I had imagined. Some warehouse guy heaved the box up the basement stairs and plopped the cardboard box on the austere table before me. “Dig in” he gruffly stated as he disappeared back through the “staff only” door to the stairwell.

After an hour or so, I found a couple of trade journal articles talking about BankerBilly with a press photo included. Elated, I filled out another form requesting a photo copy of these items. I forked over $2.25 (after being allowed to go back to my locker to bring back only my check book and driver’s license) and left. You see, there was about a two week turn around on photocopy requests. As guardians of the frail past, the archive had a strict standard for xeroxing anything. Each item was only allowed to be exposed to the copier “X” amount of times. After that, only a copy of a copy would be offered. The two week turn-around was necessary for the staff to research the number of times on record the same items had gone “through the light.” Respectable I thought, prudent of them.

In about 16 days, I had my copies in hand. Happiness.

Now let’s enter the digital age. How exciting. Everything is less adverse to the integrity of images, the work of a scanner is cheap, Memory cards and flash drives are rather universal to most scanners and results are immediate. Life is good.

Except. It’s expensive. Because there’s a ransom to be paid.

My local archive has done a real bang-up job in acquiring mounds of historic and familial documents. Still mostly uncatalogued, these items have been dropped at their feet by the bushel-full from institutions, families, and new owners of old homes with trunks full of goodies found in the attic. I would guess all of the donors felt like they were really doing a good deed. A public service–preserving history. Walking to the dumpster and giving this stuff the “heave-ho” isn’t illegal as far as I know. And although I would find such an act “unthinkable” it sure would be easier than driving the stuff downtown, dodging Hobos, and paying to park.

So several weeks ago, I went tootling down to the archive to order digital copies of several images I need for a book I’m working on. It’s a local history thing. It’s not going to hit the NYT top ten or rival John Grisham. Frankly, I am hoping for robust sales in order to break even on the hours of research etc. I brought new, clean, still in their packages sets of memory cards and a large flash drive. I purchased these thinking it would make the whole transaction less expensive ( I was looking for over 100 images) and one less step for the curating staff.

Imagine my shock to learn the “new” pricing structure. With the upgrade from copy machine to digital imaging, each image I wanted to take home would cost me $15. For that $15, I didn’t even get a lousy sheet of copier paper. Additionally, to publicly use any images in their holdings, a separate fee of $75 was imposed as a “use” fee. In short, those same images of Grandpa BankerBilly whose own last name was the property and birthright of my own children, would have cost me nearly $600 to walk out the door with that day! Back during the copy machine days, I was dinged for around $20 with postage.

Needless to say, I was stunned and a little more than just pissed off!

So before you haul a bunch of stuff to the mother-ship of your Historic Archives, I suggest doing a little bit of research first. What exactly is their policy for sharing and cataloging, and storage. Does it seem like they care? Is there another, smaller institution–even your local, small town library–who would like first dibs on this stuff?

Can it be deposited somewhere where it will be more than warehoused and shared at extortionist prices? Look for these places first. Please!

Bitter? Yes

Abhorred may be the more succinct description. How dare you hold my Grandpa-in-law hostage in a box in the basement on a warehouse shelf…unopened, ignored.

Maybe someone should write that down…



Author: Mom

I am a writer who just happens to love family trees. As the self proclaimed Family Historian and Writer in Residence at my house, I blog to others about family history writing. When I first began this journey, everyone was bored silly with my "family tree stuff." Once I started writing the stories down, everyone willingly joined in. Now the whole family pretty much participates! Imagine that ! Follow along, and you can gain a little family appreciation for all your hard nosed genealogical research while learning a little something about the craft of writing too.

16 thoughts on “Take Care What You Donate and to Whom”

  1. Thanks for highlighting a real problem. This is an issue I had never contemplated. I shall think twice in the future about donating anything. I suppose the only good thing is that at least donated items are (theoretically) being held somewhere; better that than see them get lost in the sea of items floating on eBay and elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kinda had to vent about it, but after this, I really plan to do some heavy research into how I can maintain rights to anything I give to an institution. It’s just soooo screwy! It would never occur to me to charge someone to use an old picture (as long as it was done with respect and good taste). I understand the business end of overhead and staff and facility…but really? That pricey with today’s technology, where a tree doesn’t even have to die to share the image…rrrrrrr


  2. Is it any wonder that people just throw boxes of photos, documents and other family historical items away? Before you donate – digitize, share with family members if you can and make sure the place you donate to understands that you’ve already done those things, they just get to hold the originals. Something has to be done though, items like that are priceless sources, granted, but to charge so much for a digital image is insane.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, this is scary. My grandfather gave a ton of photos and stuff to the archives at Western Michigan University. I wonder what people have to go through to get access to and even copies of that stuff!!


  4. Man, this is just wrong! I can not believe that as a family member you can’t have full and free access! Someone needs to change a broken system. Someone bold, brave, someone who can bring justice. Hmm…I wonder who that might be..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In a slightly different but similar story, my boyfriend’s Pop donated tons of historical artefacts that he owned to a local history museum. My boyfriend and I visited this museum to photograph these things only to be told we couldn’t! He was so mad considering they wouldn’t have these things if it wasn’t for his Pop. On top of that, historic guns were also donated and they were stolen! As you can imagine, he’s now hesitant to donate anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There has to be a better way to manage these situations. It’s sad. I understand that there’s staff, and facilities and storage blah blah blah…but to go paperless and hike the price by more than five times, to charge the donors’ families or to deny them any access, or to allow precious collections to be stolen…just all around not good 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve got to admit, I’ve gotten that same feeling that my history has been stolen. It’s almost as bad as finding your Great Grand parents tombstones had been bulldozed out of existence. (An event orchestrated by a parish priest seeking room for expansion!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I only liked this post because it shed light on a very disturbing practice. How incredibly sad. Those rates are unattainable for the general public and, dare I say, “highway robbery.” I found letters written by my 4th-great-grandparents that had been donated to the Indiana Historical Society who dutifully digitized them and made them publicly available FOR FREE on the internet! I printed off my own copies and then visited IHS to see them in person. If I would’ve been faced with those kind of charges, I would have had to make the decision on whether to order the copies or feed my kids. Just…wow. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

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